JOHANNESBURG: Up to 800 years. That’s how long it takes for disposable nappies and sanitary towels to decompose.

This shocking fact was revealed by Kholosa Magudu, a project manager at the World Wide Fund for Nature, at a Women’s Knowledge Café event in Johannesburg on Wednesday.

The theme of the discussion, hosted by the Department of Water and Sanitation at the Power FM studios, was health, hygiene and sanitation.

Panellist Virginia Molose, a research manager at the Water Research Commission (WRC), revealed that during a water cleaning campaign 
held in July, a large number of disposable nappies and menstrual products were found 
in water sources such as 
rivers.

At landfill sites, large mounds of nappies and sanitary towels could normally be seen.

This was problematic given the length of time it took for them to decompose, the harmful gases released during the decomposition process, and the contamination of water sources and groundwater by chemicals contained in the products.

“This is a pressing issue that needs addressing now,” Molose said.

But Petunia Ramunenyiwa, who is both the acting provincial head and chief director for operational support at the Gauteng Department of Water and Sanitation, said: “With regard to innovation, we haven’t done much to see how these sanitary towels
can degrade and not have implications.”

Challenges faced by the water and sanitation sector provided many opportunities for innovation and she encouraged women entrepreneurs to assist in coming up with solutions to these problems.

Three different audience members talked about menstrual cup products that they designed or were selling as an alternative to traditionally used sanitary towels and tampons.

The silicone cups could be inserted much the same as a tampon and could be rinsed and reused for up to 10 years.

This not only addressed the environmental challenge of the disposal of sanitary towels, but could also mean a solution to the accessibility and expense issues faced by girls and women living in poor socio-economic conditions.

But Molose pointed out that for many it would take a lot of convincing before they used a menstrual cup.

“We cannot forget the cultural stereotypes and myths around menstruation – that your blood cannot be seen, it must be thrown away.

"The bush or a river becomes a place where you can chuck these safely. We need to start challenging those (beliefs).”

An audience member said sanitary towels which could easily be washed and reused for three to five years were also available.

Molose, meanwhile, encouraged people to consider applying to the Water Technologies Demonstration Programme, a joint project between the WRC and the Department of Science and Technology, which gave innovators the opportunity to show their water and sanitation-related technology.